The Rangers Should Make a Major Minor Move

In a year not otherwise flowing with surprises on the team level, the Texas Rangers have been a big one. A 50-46 record isn’t one that’s dominating the American League or the AL West but it’s good enough that if the season ended today, the Rangers would finish 16 games ahead of their preseason ZiPS projections on a seasonal basis. One of the players most responsible for Texas’s surprise prediction-rebellion is Mike Minor. At 8-4 with a 2.73 ERA — even his 3.82 FIP is just fine in 2019’s Sillyball environment — Minor made his first All-Star Game. From missing two seasons with shoulder problems to becoming a successful Royals reclamation projection to growing into a solid No. 2 starter to being named an All-Star, Minor’s emergence has been one of the best stories in baseball in 2019. And sports being cruel sometimes, the Rangers may very well be best-served by allowing Minor to wear another uniform in the denouement.

Coming into 2019, the computer’s reasons for Rangers skepticism were straightforward: Texas had some interesting, top-tier talent but also a stunning lack of depth around the diamond. Not a single Ranger had a three-WAR season in 2018 and the team’s WAR leader, Jurickson Profar, was an Oakland Athletic. Even the team’s most interesting talent had questions, whether it was Joey Gallo‘s batting average, Jose Leclerc‘s sustainability, Rougned Odor alternating between being Jeff Kent and Clark Kent, or Nomar Mazara’s puzzling lack of development. On some level, ZiPS wasn’t wrong, as the Rangers still lack depth, but it missed out on the magnitude of their good performances. Mike Minor and Lance Lynn look like pitchers you’d actually like pitching in a playoff game, Joey Gallo has spent much of the season challenging the Alomar Line instead of the Mendoza, and Hunter Pence is having one of the wildest, out-of-nowhere offensive comebacks that I can remember.

So, given all these happy surprises, which have led to real playoff contention, why should they explore a Minor trade?

The Overall Playoff Odds Remain Long

If the Texas Rangers played in the National League, I think I’d feel differently, given the general average-ness of most of the teams. If the National League is brimming with egalité, the American League is all royals and sans-culottes. The buy-in for the American League playoffs is quite high. While talking selling instead of buying is psychologically difficult when you’re actually holding a playoff spot, the Rangers have fallen five games back after losing 10 of 14 since hitting their late-June high-water mark. In a two-team race, that might be alarming, but to make the playoffs, they have to leap frog three of four very good teams.

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – AL West – 7/18/19
Team W L GB PCT Div % WC % Playoff % WS Win % No. 1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Houston Astros 101 61 .623 97.9% 1.6% 99.6% 19.0% 0.0% 28.6
Oakland A’s 90 72 11 .556 2.1% 33.2% 35.3% 1.9% 0.0% 22.3
Texas Rangers 83 79 18 .512 0.0% 1.5% 1.5% 0.1% 0.0% 16.7
Los Angeles Angels 80 82 21 .494 0.0% 0.3% 0.3% 0.0% 0.0% 14.5
Seattle Mariners 69 93 32 .426 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 6.4

At 1.5% to make the playoffs, let’s just say that ZiPS isn’t bullish on the Rangers. And that isn’t with ZiPS still thinking that Texas is a 68-94 team, but with ZiPS believing that the teams is, on average, about a .500 team now. Given that the Rangers are at exactly .500 in Pythagorean winning percentage, and flipping two actual wins into losses also puts them at .500, I don’t think it’s an unrealistic estimation. The team’s depth is still a problem and the offense is riding on just a few players. .500 isn’t terrible, but ZiPS estimates Tampa Bay’s roster strength at .589, Boston’s at .580, Cleveland’s at .560, and Oakland’s at .534.

Just to illustrate how difficult it is for Texas to move up from the back of the pack, let’s simply tell ZiPS that the Rangers are a .550 team, not a .500. I can tell my computer what to do, after all. That only gets the Rangers to a 9% playoff shot. The magic number for a 10% shot is .554 (89.7 wins per 162) and .600 only moves them to one-in-four. It would be hard to overrate just how damaging Texas’s recent run has been to their playoff scenarios as getting to just 90 wins requires a 40-26 record (.606).

Winning the Division Isn’t Impossible, But It’s Implausible

When a second-tier contender has to decide whether to push in their chips or fold, their standing in their division has to play a role in that decision. Teams like the Brewers, Cardinals, or Indians aren’t setting the league on fire, but they’re also not fighting just for the wild card. Under baseball’s current playoff structure, having a chance to make the playoffs proper rather than doing so via a one-game wild card playoff is a tremendous boon to the team’s World Series odds. 9 1/2 games isn’t an impossible margin by any means, but Oakland is a serious complicating factor. In a three-team race, the leader collapsing may be necessary for a team this far out, but it’s not sufficient; if Houston collapses in legendary fashion, Oakland would also have to cooperate for the Rangers to benefit. Having lots of in-division games helps the Rangers control their destiny, but it also puts a floor on how many losses Oakland and Houston can combine for.

Mike Minor’s Value Will Never, Ever Be Higher

One of the things I found while developing in-season projections was that in-season performance is rather “sticky” in nature. In other words, players tend to regress less in-season than one would expect from the regression model for the normal seasonal projections. According to ZiPS’s zHR, which estimates how many homers a pitcher “should” allow given their advanced data, Minor has allowed eight fewer homers than you would expect, the sixth-largest over-performance in baseball in 2019. But that’s a larger concern for 2020 than 2019. Minor’s 4.43 xFIP isn’t just that stat being grumpy. I should note that the full-on ZiPS model is more optimistic than the in-season model, as it sees Minor’s continued improvement in exit velocity and contact data and thinks those numbers suggest a lower walk rate.

Teams are aware of these things, so Minor is an interesting gamble for a team in the right spot that can leverage that performance right now. Minor’s signed for the 2020 season for under $10 million, and if there’s one things teams like better than above-average pitchers, it’s above-average pitchers they don’t have to pay like above-average pitchers.

ZiPS Projection – Mike Minor
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2020 11 7 0 4.00 26 26 155.3 145 69 20 50 143 116 3.0

There Are More Buyers Than Sellers

While some of the more-marginal contenders in the National League may engage in some light selling (Arizona, Cincinnati, the Mess, er Mets), it’s not inevitable. San Francisco’s recent surprising competence may even push Madison Bumgarner back into the hold column, leaving Marcus Stroman as the only big-name starter who is definitely available. The American League’s basement dwellers have largely shed their talent already, leaving the other-than-Stroman market a flurry of might-be-availables like Matt Boyd, Robbie Ray, Zack Greinke, and Trevor Bauer. That leaves the Rangers with an opportunity to close a beneficial Minor trade with a team that doesn’t want to wait around and see which players teams are actually willing to move for reasonable prices.

Texas’s Windows is Opening, Not Closing

If this were the last gasp of the Rangers, like the Tigers or Orioles of a few years ago, I’d be arguing it’s time to batten down the hatches and make additions in an attempt to grab that last playoff appearance. The real Rangers rise is largely in the future, not the present, like the Twins a couple of years ago. Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen rated 10 Rangers prospects as being 45 future value or better, and while that’s not in the same league as the Rays or Padres, it’s on an even keel with the Astros or Dodgers. They even picked up a 50 recently in Nick Solak, one of my favorite under-the-radar trades this year. Texas is not a poor team (they have a $3 billion TV deal) and Globe Life Park opens in 2020, meaning that like the Phillies, they’re in a position to go after whoever they want in free agency. When the Rangers are better equipped for a playoff run, in 2020 or 2021 or 2022, they have the ability to splash cash in a world where other teams have mostly played Scrooge.

Do the Rangers have to trade Mike Minor? Absolutely not, and I wouldn’t suggest they settle for a Kerry Ligtenberg-level haul. But the rumors that they’re willing to deal him make perfect sense and is something Texas should strongly be looking at. The smart bet in Texas remains the future more than the present.

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Trades I want to see this July:

Will Smith for Will Smith.

Mike Minor to the Twins with Mike Morin involved (anagram trade)